Beyond Public Services

    There can be no doubting the government’s commitment to the future
    of the voluntary and community sector. The VCS is dead-centre of
    its vision for public services. Initiatives such as the
    Futurebuilders fund and the ChangeUp programme, financing the
    development of the sector’s capacity and infrastructure, testify to
    its importance.

    But the question that lurks at the back of this enterprise is to
    what extent the government’s vision is the voluntary sector’s own.
    Are public services really the be-all and end-all for the VCS as
    Labour’s chief election strategist Alan Milburn and some shrill
    voices in the Home Office regularly imply? Or is there more to
    life? For many of those who see their charitable role as a vocation
    as much as a career, both questions can be answered without
    hesitation: the historic mission of the voluntary sector as an
    advocate and campaigner for ordinary people takes it well beyond
    the bounds of public services.

    So there are clear reasons why the VCS has misgivings about the
    signals emerging from Whitehall. As Stuart Etherington, chief
    executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, put
    it last week: “There is a growing sense of nervousness among
    charities that the reform of public services is beginning to frame
    the sector’s relationship with the state.” The remark was a little
    disingenuous, considering the enthusiasm with which the NCVO has
    embraced New Labour’s policy, but it did attempt to draw a line.

    Significantly, it came as the Charity Commission was about to
    announce arrangements for charities to be primary providers of
    public services rather than play second-fiddle to the public
    sector. In one sense this development is welcome because it will
    encourage much-needed investment and broaden the range of options
    open to the VCS. Both central and local government are guilty of
    talking up the potential of the voluntary sector without finding
    enough money for capacity-building or running costs.

    But voluntary groups have another function. That is to play a part
    in the civil life of communities, to strengthen and sustain them
    with a variety of small-scale projects initiated locally by the
    people who live there. If this is forgotten, the essence of the
    voluntary sector will be lost.

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